Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday his administration will spend $3 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health effects of the natural gas industry, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of pediatric cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state.
Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008.
Ewing has no known environmental cause, and gas industry officials say there is no evidence linking pediatric cancer to drilling. But the families nevertheless suspect that drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the method that energy companies use to extract natural gas from shale rock, played a role. They have been pressing the Wolf administration for an investigation into any possible link between this extremely rare form of bone cancer and shale gas development — and confronted Wolf himself at the Capitol on Monday.
“I want to thank the families that have shared their heartbreaking stories,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday. “I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases.”
The research, he said, is meant to address “the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers.”
One study will use existing research that linked natural gas activity to medical conditions like asthma and, applying the same methodology, try to replicate those earlier findings in the population in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The other study will focus specifically on rare childhood cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, with researchers looking at whether these young cancer patients were exposed to fracking more often than a control population.
“We’re very happy to hear this. We feel as though our voices have been heard and hopefully, through the research, maybe they will come up with some answers to these mysterious rare cancers,” said Christine Barton, whose 22-year-old son, Mitch, has been battling Ewing sarcoma for nearly a year. She said the family lives within two miles of four well pads, with the closest one a half-mile down the road.
In a joint statement Friday, three gas industry groups said they support Wolf’s efforts to get to the bottom of the pediatric cancer cases, noting: "The concerns in these communities are shared with our industry. We live here too and have no higher priority than protecting and ensuring the health and safety of our communities, especially our kids and grandkids."
The industry groups also called on state officials to “neutrally, fairly and without bias evaluate all potential factors.”
Each study is projected to last three years. The state is seeking to partner on them with an academic research institution.
Friday’s announcement came after residents and activists had expressed anger and frustration over the state Department of Health’s handling of the pediatric cancer crisis. The health department concluded this year that the cancer cases did not meet the technical definition of a cluster, a finding that was greeted with skepticism by activists and residents who said the agency failed to include some cases in its study. Residents blasted health officials at an October information session at Canon-McMillan High School, in a district where there’s been a half-dozen cases of Ewing sarcoma.
On Friday, Janice Blanock, whose 19-year-old son, Luke Blanock, died of Ewing in 2016, said she was ecstatic over the new research funding.
“This is a giant positive step, and I think they’re finally taking it serious and really understanding where we’re coming from,” she said.